When I put my hands on the little Sony RX1 for the first time, I didn`t think that it was going to be the main camera to shoot one of my videos. Much less if I required very high technical performance for time-lapse footage of northern lights, video at 50 fps a slider, etc..
The Sony RX1 is undoubtedly a very special camera, due to its Full Frame sensor 24 x 36 mm, its 35mm fixed lens and its small size, it has been designed to become the perfect companion for the photo-journalist and social photographer. I do not think Sony’s engineers’ plan was for this camera to be used for making professional videos, even though it includes video option, as this is obligatory today in most cameras.
The promising qualities of this little gem, as the magnificent Zeiss Sonnar T *, the ability to record at 50 fps in 1080 as well as its small size, made me think it could be interesting and challenging to do a video with this camera in Iceland. For this, I had to manage with a little ingenuity and some skill, the limitations it suffers when performing both video and timelapse. So in this article I will try to explain how I solved these limitations, not forgetting of course describing the performance of the camera in both photo and video mode.
The Sony RX1 is a high-end compact camera, ideal to carry around everywhere you go without being noticed. It is not designed for use as a DSLR or camcorder, it does not have many of the advantages of these cameras, so shooting a video with it was bit tricky. At first I thought because of its fixed lens my options would be limited, as I was about to make a video in Iceland where the landscape would be the protagonist, which in many cases require a wider or longer lens than the 35 mm Carl Zeiss Sonnar T *.
My surprise was that working with this fixed lens not only did not limit my creativity, but it enhanced it. I was forced to see nature in a different way, to move around the scene, to get closer to objects, seek for fresh and exciting framing. Something I thought was impossible, as I was filming in locations I had visited many times before, as I conduct workshops in this area of Iceland quite often.
So I have to say though in my backpack had a Sony A99 with a good set of Carl Zeiss lenses,I didn’t need to take it out, and returned home without taking a single shot. The small size and weight of the Sony RX1 beat the heavy bag with the A99 and lenses, that stayed kept in the car for the entire trip.
In most of the shots I used a KietaCAM slider, without tripods, with only the fantastic legs that come as standard. The Kietacam and Sony RX1 became a tool as practical and creative as compact and lightweight. Lighter and smaller than a DSLR with a tripod, I could get shots with a stunning visual strength, easily adapting the slider to the scene and situation of each spot. Transforming the lack of tripods and other accessories in new creative possibilities, finding new and fresh angles. Perhaps the biggest drawback I found on the RX1 regarding my A99 was the lack of folding screen. After you get used to this feature is very hard not to miss it, especially coming from several years at Canon.
Not everything would be to my advantage, and I knew that when I got into this adventure, and some might say it was a risk, shooting a video with a compact camera of this kind. Perhaps the biggest problem I had to face was the short duration of the battery of the RX1. On the web there is a lot of talk about the few shots that holds the battery, but if what we do is video, where both the screen and the sensor are constantly running, and if we work at the low temperatures of Iceland, the battery of the RX1 sometimes did not last more than half hour. Also Sony has decided not to include a charger in their new compact cameras, this is certainly a mistake, especially if we talk about cameras in this price range. In the RX1 the battery should be charged using the USB cable, connecting the camera to your computer or plug. As result we can`t charge a second battery while using the camera. I solved this problem with a universal charger, which adapted to the RX1 batteries so I can charge the extra battery while using the camera. With such high consumption, the RX1 used more batteries than I had time to charge, in many cases a battery was unable to make a full time-lapse, even less at night, where exposures were about 20 seconds.
The solution was to connect a 5v external battery to the RX1 using a micro USB cable. This battery provided a more prolonged autonomy, although not as much as would have liked, especially on cold nights in Iceland. Another thing to mention is that due to the small size of the camera and the position of the battery at the bottom we have to remove the tripod plate each time you change the battery, which is quite uncomfortable, and could have been resolved better. As I said earlier, this camera is designed as a pocket camera, working on tripods is not a priority.
Menu and other features
The RX1 menu is as simple as practical, especially if you’re used to work with Sony cameras like the A99 or NEX. In my case, after two years working with these cameras, it took me just a few minutes to get familiar with the set up of the RX1.
Once again Sony provides perhaps the biggest advantage over most DSLR or CSC, the ability to record at 50 fps Full HD or 1080p. So we can get fluid slow motion effect on our shots without sacrificing high resolution image quality. Another handy feature is image stabilization. When this option is activated, it applies a small crop to the image, which is not much problem, because if we do it via software afterwards, we would get the same result. But lets dig into what I`m sure interests you most, problems, weaknesses and how to overcome them.
The first major problem I encountered is the lack of any help to focus in video mode. While in photo mode we have peaking, magnification and of course autofocus, all this disappears when we move the dial to video mode (always speaking in manual mode). I do not understand what Sony’s engineers were thinking when decided not to paste the lines of code that activate these functions in the firmware, even though the NEX cameras or the A99 have these options. When working on video in manual mode there is no possibility of confirming our focus, and to rely on the screen is little more than an act of divine faith. The solution? As simple as annoying, move the dial to photo mode or any other program, where the magnification works, focus on the desired point and move back the dial to video mode to push record.
What happens with the exposure? Do we have histogram? Like the Sony A99, the histogram does not work in video mode. Why? I guess they also forgot to activate it in the firmware, because I don’t think they felt it was unnecessary , as it is essential. So I checked the exposure while in photo mode, like with the focus.
I have to say this, if the RX1 and A99 are designed for both photo and video, why not enable the two options in manual mode? I do not understand the need to change the mode dial every time I take a picture after recording a video clip, or vice versa. If Sony decides to activate this option, this will make our work easier and also will help to sell more cameras.
The quality of the lens of the Sony RX1, the Carl Zeiss Sonnar T * 35mm f / 2, is beyond any doubt. Even wide open the performance is fantastic. As I said earlier, the fixed lens made me think it would be very limited, but that limitation did nothing but enhance my creativity when seeking new compositions and points of view. In addition the aperture of f2 allowed me reduce the exposure in my timelapse of the Northern Lights to half against the f2, 8 that I use in the Zoom on my Sony A99.
This means that I could make double the shots with the RX1 than with the A99 in the same time. The Carl Zeiss Sonnar T * features a ring for manual iris control, and this is a great advantage when making video and time-lapses, being very handy to avoid flickering when timelapsing as well. What really missed in this lens were the focus marks and hard stops at the end of the length of the ring. I truly think that a camera of this level and distinctly retro and manual style, should have had these features. Having had marks or stops, would have been enough to focus manually in many situations, solving the lack of magnification or peaking.
From the beginning I knew that to do time-lapse with a compact camera would be an exciting challenge as potentially hazardous. But I was surprised when I realized that the Sony RX1 had neither connector for remote control or infrared sensor for the remote activation, as you can find in the Sony NEX cameras. Sony has decided to include in this latest generation camera, a trigger system we could call … vintage. I am talking about the classic manual trigger cable, the one we used in our old film cameras. After confirming that this was the only option, I went to my local store and bought one of this old cables, which provided the necessary blocker. How did I create my time-lapses? How to set the interval? When shooting at daylight I used ND filters to allow me set 1 or 2 seconds of shutter speed, then choose continuous shooting mode on the camera and block the trigger. This way as soon as the camera ends one exposure it starts the next one, so that the interval is rather controlled by the exposure time. A bit limited yes, but quite effective, and also long exposures are much more fluid and aesthetic when we do time-lapses.
Shooting at night, in the case of the northern lights, obviously did not need the filters, and the choice of the exposure is the key again, and also in this case there was no difference between the RX1 or shooting with a DSLR because I never use interval between shots when shooting at night, firing continuously to avoid jumps in the final image. I have to say that I always shot at full quality, 24 megapixel RAW and using SanDisk Extreme III never had buffer problems.
I think the image quality offered by the RX1 is excellent beyond any doubt. In both video and pictures, this little feat of technology has proven to be at the standard of the DSLRs. Even in situations as complex as the Northern Lights, which are shot at ISO 3200 with exposures of 20 seconds, the images generated by the RX1 showed a low level of noise and a very good resolution. Also a fantastic response to the high contrast of these scenes.
When I first opened the video files of the RX1, they surprise me with great resolution, something that we have not used with DSLR. This resulted in a very low level of aliasing and moiré, producing a very clean image. Also the dynamic range is at the highest level. As I have seen in this shoot, facing high contrast situations, with bright ice on dark volcanic sand, the Sony RX1 has performed better than many of the high-end DSLR. I can’t emphasize enough the uniqueness of having the image quality of a high-end DSLR in a pocket camera. It’s just brilliant.
What at first appeared as a whimsical challenge with uncertain results has become a rewarding and enriching experience. It has given me a new way of seeing and capturing a landscape that I thought had nothing new to offer me.
While some of the limitations and disadvantages of the Sony RX1 were difficult to overcome, others like the fixed focal length, were key to the success of this work. But the exceptional qualities of the RX1 are what made this work different from the rest. The small size and weight, ease of use and fantastic image quality of the RX1 resulted in a video with a professional quality and visual freshness difficult to achive with any other compact camera.
I think this video is the perfect proof that the model of camera is not as important as the way you use it, and that even with a compact camera you can do interesting work if you put effort , creativity and a little ingenuity.
If you liked this images, you might want to come to one of my workshops